“Where do we begin?
In my college days I spent a summer piloting a fishing boat in and around Ketchikan, Alaska. In learning the job I recall my first extended shift of piloting by myself as we traveled up from Seattle to Ketchikan. We followed the scenic but often narrow “inside passage” among the islands just off the Canadian coast.
As pilot my main concern was to stay steady on the heading I was directed to steer—as posted in our guidebook—until we reached each new navigation marker. There I would be directed by the book to steer to a new heading. The book listed the miles traveled between navigation markers, so I could know when to expect a course change by the speed we were traveling.
On that first extended stretch something went wrong. After steering the proper course for well over an hour I was directed in the book to change our course. Yet the book promised a new navigation buoy would be in view at that stage. But all I could see were some treacherous rocks getting all too close! After a bit of hesitation I called below to the skipper: “Hey, Hans, I need some help!” He came up to the bridge, looked around, turned white, and yanked back the throttle: “Where are we?!” I certainly didn’t know!
He was angry with me at first for not steering the proper course. But I knew I had. He accepted that and after some further checking he came up with the actual problem: the boat’s compass had drifted—a function of traveling ever closer to the magnetic north pole—and it needed to be readjusted. With the unrecognized compass error we had traveled off course by just 2 degrees, but in two hours that was enough to bring us very near some dangerous shoals.
In talking about the Christian faith we find a similar challenge if we ask, “Where do we begin? And what direction do we take in our new faith?” A shared clue is offered in both Genesis and John’s gospel. Both start, “In the beginning . . . .” Genesis goes on to say “God”. And John starts with “the Word”. Both make God to be the first point of reference, each with trinitarian features. God himself is: a) the beginning, b) the “way”, and c) the outcome for all that follows in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is not about us, but about God. Once that’s settled both texts go on to discuss us and our relationship to God.
Yet our human instinct is to ask, “Fine, but let’s be practical: what is our place—our duty—in all this?” The famous Westminster Catechisms (i.e. both the shorter and the longer versions) start, for instance, by asking: “What is the chief end of man?”
An important and very practical question! But is there, perhaps, a misdirection in our course when we shift from God’s beginning point to our own interest in the chief end of man? I don’t mean to be petty in raising the question. The English ministers assembled in London had written their questions-and-responses as a 17th century training manual for young believers. So that is where they started: with the audience. It made perfectly good sense. But it may well have revealed a human preoccupation with humanity.
So here is the point: the catechism began with a slight shift away from the lead offered by Genesis 1:1 and John 1:1. It started with the human point of view. God was nudged, ever so slightly, out of the center. He became the frame of the picture. God’s role as creator, ruler, judge, and savior would be unfolded later in the catechism, so why worry about the order of presentation? How could that be a problem?
The problem appeared when the same basic shift was taken by the French Catholic philosopher, Renee Descartes, some years later. In his famous aphorism, “I think, therefore I am,” he meant to defend the Christian faith. How? By using a self-referential premise that was “beyond doubt”. It offered a practical starting point in bringing a Christian witness to skeptics. Yet in doing so, Descartes shifted the beginning point for considering God. Rather then God’s revelation, Descartes began with human rationality. So it was no longer, “In the beginning God . . .” Instead it was, “In the beginning ‘I think!’” And, “from my capacities to think clearly and argue convincingly, I will demonstrate beyond any doubt that God, too, must exist!”
Or so he hoped. But he was wrong as a host of later rationalistic travelers would show by offering their own convincing proofs that God—at least the God of the Bible—did not exist. Or so they hoped.
In fact a slightly new course had been set—only a couple of degrees away from the Bible’s own starting point. The Cartesian rationalists—those who followed Descartes’ methods—had moved away from the biblical course steered by the first great Reformers, but only in a small way. For Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and others, God is the ultimate communicator. God must be trusted to share himself reliably, freely, and in every expression of priority. Revelation, and the faith birthed by that revelation, begins and continues with a focus on God and God alone.
With the shift to a human starting point—only a slight shift in its starting point and direction of travel—the complete confidence in revelation that Luther embraced began to be replaced over time by human critiques of Biblical content. Man became, increasingly, the measure of all things. And in this new version of “faith” virtually every biblical affirmation and disclosure of God and his heart now can be challenged, or even dismissed, by good arguments. We humans have become “like God” with a deep self-confidence in clear thinking. God is merely a frame for our portraits.
Let me add here that I have no doubt that proponents of the Westminster doctrinal themes—whether in the 17th or the 21st centuries, or anytime in between—were and are intent on honoring God. In fact, the proper answer to the great question of the two catechisms is that the “chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” Yet even this seemingly noble claim differs from the Bible . . . by at least a couple of degrees.
How so? It is ultimately utilitarian and pragmatic. The human encounter with God sets up a treaty-like obligation. Any encounter with God focuses on a duty: to give God glory. By making the human role central, humans are seen to be workers created to satisfy God’s needs—as servants rather than sons. Servants with a task to fulfill, even though the duty promises enjoyment. That can be made to sound wonderful! But it moves ever so slightly away from the order and the substance of the Bible.
Consider the function of glory. Jesus, with the Father always first in his eyes, spoke with an incredible delight he found in bringing glory to the Father, a glory shared within the Godhead from before the creation began. Jesus, however, refused to make glory an end in itself. Instead it was an offshoot of love as he spoke to the Father on our behalf, seeking to share with us “the glory you have given me because you loved me!” [John 17:24]
So in the slight misdirection of pragmatic faith, the love of God that creates a response of mutual love in us slips out of focus. Instead faith is formed around lists of God’s qualities and powers; lists created for more efficient human applications. Biblical narratives are displaced by more efficient summaries that are better able to guide our conduct and worship as servants. Theology offered better proofs and more coherent truth systems in order to overcome doubts and to convince others to believe right truths. But this seems not to have been God’s point of view as he led the writer of the fourth gospel to start off very simply and in a way that portrays God’s desire to communicate his own agenda: “In the beginning was the Word.”
What if we started with God instead of man? If our catechisms were to begin by considering God’s being? And not our own? As in: “What is most true of God?” What would we find to be our starting point? The Bible answers firmly and clearly: “For God so loved the world that he sent his one and only Son . . .” And, that, “God is love.”
The Bible also tells us that God is holy, righteous, strong, wise, and so on. But all of these adjectives simply describe God’s character and his activities, but not his motivational center. His “heart” is revealed as love. The first fruit of the Spirit—who shares God’s inmost being with us—is love. The great call of the Bible, whenever God’s own agenda is front and center, is to love God and, in consort with that, to love our neighbor. The great signal of a true community of faith is the presence of unflagging mutual love. In the great triad of faith, hope, and love, the greatest is love.
From the fount of God’s love emerges the creation, and we then discover that he loves us as the epitome of the creation. Our chief end, then, is to love God in return. We are wired by God to love, just as God loves.
What if we shift away from that course? In the Bible, our guide book to eternity, we find just two courses are posted: after Adam’s Fall all of creation divides into one of two trajectories. One is to love God. The other is to hate him (while still trying to placate him!).
In life every activity, every discussion, every thought, and every affection is meant to correspond to God’s heart—to follow in his ways. As we long to explore the trajectory of God’s love, with a desire birthed by God’s own paternity, a tremendous opportunity lies before us: to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge. Any other ambition is outside the course set before us by the triune God who, in his eternal inherent communion, is love. To know him is to love him.
So “In the beginning God” is just the launching point to an eternal pursuit that will never end, but which always has God before us, Christ in us, and the Spirit moving us—to follow his Word into the love we are invited to enjoy forever. May we steer that course, using the Bible as our guidebook and God’s heart as our compass, without any variations whatsoever. The joy of his love will be present both in our travel and in our destiny.
Dr. Ron Frost
Ron helped to launch Cor Deo UK in 2011, and retired from the ministry at the end of 2015. He continues to blog at his “A Spreading Goodness“. His doctoral thesis on Richard Sibbes is still available from Cor Deo and is well worth reading. For more information on Cor Deo, including the weekly theological blog, please visit www.cordeo.org.uk. Ron is now a pastoral care consultant with Barnabas International. In this role he provides care, coaching, encouragement, and educational services to those in overseas cross-cultural ministries. Go to Barnabas International for more information about this unique ministry and for a link that offers support options.